February brings groundhog day at its beginning and some longer day-length and light at the month’s end. It is always a little exciting to watch silly weather-men and women with a groundhog waiting to see if it will cast a shadow on February 2. If the groundhog sees his shadow, it is believed he will go back to sleep for we will have six more weeks of winter. We in Connecticut should know it is still too early for this hibernating animal to wake from its winter slumber deep underground if it were left to its own in a natural environment. Thankfully we have a few nature centers caring for rescued animals that would otherwise not survive in the wild. Some have a groundhog or two to share with the public on this most ceremonious day of weather prediction. And the annual tradition continues with much lightheartedness bringing needed smiles and community, and a 50 50 chance of accuracy.
How they get the groundhog to participate is a great feat, because after all, it is a wild animal most people encounter feeding on lawn and gardens, or on sides of highways in open land. They are those brown, ground hugging mounds moving in the grassy areas along the roads.
Other names for groundhog are woodchuck and whistle pig. They do make a whistling sound when alarmed and a ‘chuck chuck’ sound both inspiring their common names. Their Latin name is Marmota monax and are a rodent in the squirrel family. These ground dwelling rodents dig tunnels two to five feet deep and up to 30 feet long. They usually produce one generation per year in litter numbers of two to six born in April or May. At six weeks of age, young are free to forage for themselves and leave the den on their own. That is a lot of woodchucks for one small, suburban lawn!
I personally have a running summer battle with a family of groundhogs determined to scale the fence surrounding my vegetable garden and eat just about everything I grow. Fencing should be left loose and angled out and away from the garden so the climbing animal will fall out rather than into the garden. Bury the bottom of the fence 1 1/2 to 2 feet deep to prevent digging under the fence. Stringing an electric fence wire four to six inches above the ground in addition to the fence will give the animal a shock, providing it with a lesson not to return. Animal repellents of hot pepper, garlic, sulfur and predator urine can all be sprayed around areas you want to protect. These usually need to be reapplied after hard rain. It is illegal to put out any poison which targets woodchuck. Trapping is allowed according to the Connecticut DEEP, with relocation onto State managed wildlife areas or forests. However, DEEP does not recommend relocating nuisance animals as it is very stressful for the animal. It will not have housing, food or water and usually ends in death of the animal. DEEP recommends humane euthanization.
Groundhog, woodchuck or whistle pig, whatever you call them, they can do a lot of damage. Below is a picture of a pretty old weeping cherry tree on the great lawn of the UConn campus in Storrs. I have been watching the steady decline and eventual death of this specimen tree due to the extensive tunneling and den building, excavating under the roots. There are large soil mounds and a wide hole giving access and protection. UConn has many such areas providing shelter to the ever-growing population of these animals, which can be common place to see all over campus. Stepping in one of holes can also be a danger. Farmers have long battled with woodchucks making holes in pasture and field, especially dangerous for horses and cows which could break a leg.
If control measures of fences, repellents and traps still leave you with a groundhog problem, there is always the option of hiring a Nuisance Wildlife Control Operator licensed by the State. http://www.ct.gov/deep/lib/deep/wildlife/pdf_files/nwco/nwcodir.pdf